Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging Ageism

Ageism – the unnoticed -ism

Written by Michele Dinman, project coordinator for the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health

“She looks so good for her age”…“I was having a senior moment”…“50 is the new 30”…“Old people go there”….“You don’t look 70”… “Millennials have an inflated sense of entitlement” …“She is too young to be a manager”

Does this sound familiar?  These are comments that people of all ages say all the time, and that may even be well intended. We have probably also given someone a birthday card that mocks, instead of celebrates, getting older. These actions are ageist. They put down older (or younger) people even though they are thought to be harmless jokes or compliments.

The World Health Organization, in its Global Report on Ageism, defines ageism as pertaining to the stereotypes (how people think), prejudice (how people feel) and discrimination (how people act) directed towards others or oneself based on age.Ageism begins in childhood and is reinforced over the course of one’s life. Ageism is everywhere – in the workplace, in media, in Hollywood, in schools and in health care, and it is something that most everyone will experience at some point in their lives. Ageism can be intentional (explicit) or unintentional (implicit) and can take many different forms.

Source: Ageism in America, 2006

Older adults may experience ageism in employment, housing, health care, and in their daily lives through social interactions and exposure to ageist beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes. These are forms of “everyday ageism.” In December 2019, the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging surveyed a national sample of adults ages 50–80 about their experiences with everyday ageism. Overall, 82% of older adults said that they regularly experienced at least one form of everyday ageism. These forms of ageism included:

• Exposure to ageist messages (jokes about aging or messages suggesting that older adults are unattractive or undesirable);

• Ageism through social interactions (others assume that because of their age, they have difficulty using technology, hearing, seeing, remembering, understanding, or need help with tasks that they can do themselves); and,

• Internalized ageism (thinking that feeling lonely, depressed, sad, or worried are normal feelings associated with getting older.)

Ageism shortens older peoples’ lives; leads to poor physical health; delays recovery from injury or illness; affects mental health; increases social isolation and loneliness; and reduces overall quality of life. Ageism takes a heavy economic toll on both individuals and society costing society billions of dollars (WHO, 2021). Ageism may increase conflict between generations of people and causes discrimination in the workplace resulting in a loss of productivity (Palmore, E. 2015). Ageism not only harms its victims, but it also affects an institution’s culture by creating a less diverse and inclusive space and deprives organizations of talented people. Therefore, age needs to be included in broader diversity and inclusivity initiatives (Pfeffer, J. WELCOA News).

Improving peoples’ understanding of ageism is a prerequisite for changing the narrative around age and aging. Campaigns to reduce ageism need to be developed and evaluated. Data and research need to be improved to understand ageism and how to reduce it. Individuals of all ages, businesses, governments, organizations, and academic and research institutions have a role to play in building a movement to eliminate ageism (WHO 2021).

In 2018, Washington University joined the Age-Friendly University (AFU) Global Network and the Center for Aging began its WashU for Life Initiative. Despite its importance, the implementation of age-friendly efforts on campuses have been hindered by persistent and overlooked ageism. Bringing learners of different ages together to increase age-diversity and inclusion on campuses, along with improving people’s understanding of ageism, can reduce prejudice and discrimination (J.Montepare, K.Farah 2020).